Tag Archives: English Romantic poetry

For Honest Poverty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 32.2

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Robert Burns, Part 2

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Robert Burns wore his heart in his poetry. His topics range from romantic love to radical politics. In meter and rhyme, he attacked the church, the class system, and the inequality of gender roles.

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

Burns was born thirteen years after the Battle of Culloden, the beginning of the end of the traditional Scottish Highland way of life, and of the clans. The British, who had nominally controlled Scotland since the 1707 Acts of Union but had never been able to harness the independent Highlanders, mercilessly seized Highland farms, killing the occupants or driving them off their land summarily, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The Highlands were cleared, the clan system abolished, the wearing of the tartan prohibited.

Thus, Robert Burns

belonged to a nation which had lost its independence but was at the same time part of a larger state in whose successes he could rejoice and in whose better government he was interested, so that his patriotism was always of a peculiarly double sort. His attachment to what, for want of a better word, must be termed his class, that is, to the lower orders, broadly conceived, reinforced and buttressed his nationalism. —Robert Burns Plus, accessed January 28, 2009

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. [Burns was a] cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, [and] celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries…. His influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

The poem “Is There for Honest Poverty” is a plainspoken, songlike expression of Burns’s democratic principles. These were radical for the time. Read, for historical perspective on class distinction, the delightful novel Emma (1816), by Jane Austen. The title character is a wealthy, beautiful, clever, and basically kindhearted member of the rural aristocracy, but one with a misguided rigidity in matters of social class.

Emma persuades her young and impressionable friend Harriet not to marry the well-spoken, prosperous farmer who is courting her. The girl would be marrying beneath herself, Emma explains, and Emma herself would have to “drop the acquaintance.”

emmaAusten, in her gentle way, exposes Emma’s folly; she is properly ashamed. The author writes satirically, of course, as in all her novels, about artificial distinctions between “gentlemen” with inherited wealth or social position and those who had to earn their living — as merchants or tenant farmers, for example. The egalitarian fervor of the French Revolution (1789-1799) had not gone unnoticed in England, and it certainly influenced the politics and poetry of Robert Burns. 

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and “Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known across the world today include A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s A Man for A’ That” [“Is There for Honest Poverty”], “To a Louse,” “To a Mouse,” “The Battle of Sherramuir,” “Tam O’Shanter,” and “Ae Fond Kiss….”

He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009 

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wiklipedia

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wikipedia

Assignment 32.3

  1. Analyze one of the poems at “The Ploughman Poet“: (a) What intimate glimpse of Burns’s soul does it provide? (b) How does it do so (through language, rhyme, meter, metaphor, and other poetic conventions)?
  2. Write a poem patterned after Burns’s style that illustrates one deep conviction of your own.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.
  6.  * * *

 

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Metaphorical You

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 19
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

All the Animals You Are

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

 

Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Sharpen your intellectual claws. We are going to attack (metaphorically) one of the most famous and admired poems in English literature, “The Tiger” (or “The Tyger”), by William Blake (1757–1827). First, though, you’ll read another of Blake’s poems, “The Lamb,” which is often studied as a contrast to “The Tiger.”

THE LAMB

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Jargon to impress your friends

William Blake's Title Plate for *Songs of Experience*

William Blake's title plate for *Songs of Experience*

Here’s a bit of vocabulary that you can use to sound really smart when discussing the mechanics of these poems:

Quatrain — Four-line stanza, usually containing a rhyme scheme. “The Tiger” consists of six quatrains.

Rhyme scheme — Pattern of rhymes in verse. A different letter represents each rhyming sound. In “The Lamb,” the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines is AABBCCDD. In “The Tiger,” the rhyme scheme of each quatrain is AABB, if you allow eye and symmetry to rhyme. Blake might have been indulging in “near rhyme” (half rhyme, slant rhyme) there. It’s also possible that the words were pronounced differently in the late 1700s, when Blake wrote the poem. Or there might be intentional irony in the nonrhyming couplet, which is, in a sense, not symmetrical. (Other common quatrain rhyme schemes are ABAB, ABBA, and ABCB.)

Couplet — Pair of consecutive rhyming lines. In “The Tiger,” each quatrain has two couplets.

Foot — A group of 2 or 3 syllables — one stressed, one or two unstressed — forming a “metrical unit,” the basic unit of poetic rhythm (TI-ger is a foot in “The Tiger.” Compare with “ARE you // GO-ing to // SCAR-bor-ough // FAIR,” which combines two-syllable and three-syllable feet.)

Trochaic foot (trochee) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, as in the four trochees “PE-ter, // PE-ter, // PUMP-kin // EAT-er” (as well as in “TI-ger, // TI-ger, // BURN-ing // BRIGHT.” The absence of a final unstressed syllable [which would be present if Blake had written “TI-ger, TI-ger, BURN-ing BRIGHT-ly”] is called catalexis).

Iambic foot (iamb) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed (Christopher Marlowe‘s famous line “Come LIVE // with ME // and BE // my LOVE” consists of four iambs.)

Tetrameter — A line of poetry in which there are four metrical feet (All the examples above are either in trochaic tetrameter or, as in the Marlowe line, in iambic tetrameter.)

Trimeter — A line of poetry in which there are three metrical feet (In “The Lamb,” the first two lines are in trochaic trimeter; the following six lines are in troachic tetrameter with catalexis.)

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Observe how Blake uses, in addition to metaphor, the following rhetorical devices in the two poems:

Anaphora — Repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of lines

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings (The cacophony in “Tiger” contrasts markedly with the euphony in “Lamb.”)

Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

A poem you can sink your teeth into

“The Tyger” seems to provide unending food for thought, which is one of the things that make it a truly great poem. Here is one analysis:

Of course, there can be no gainsaying [denying] that the tiger symbolizes evil, or the incarnation of evil, and that the lamb (Line 20) represents goodness, or Christ. Blake’s inquiry is a variation on an old philosophical and theological question: Why does evil exist in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent God?  Blake provides no answer. His mission is to reflect reality in arresting images. A poet’s first purpose, after all, is to present the world and its denizens in language that stimulates the aesthetic sense; he is not to exhort or moralize. Nevertheless, the poem does stir the reader to deep thought. Here is the tiger, fierce and brutal in its quest for sustenance; there is the lamb, meek and gentle in its quest for survival. Is it possible that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger? Or was the tiger the devil’s work? —Cummings Study Guides, accessed November 4, 2008

This commentator sees the tiger as a symbol of evil and the lamb as a symbol of Christ. I respectfully gainsay his or her view. A symbol can be but is not always a metaphor. A handshake might symbolize friendship or agreement, but it is not a metaphor for friendship or agreement, just as the U.S. flag is not, in itself, a metaphor for our country.

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

The writer fails to consider “The Tiger,” which appeared in Blake’s book Songs of Experience, in relationship to “The Lamb,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. (Blake considered the two books a unit and published them together, as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.) Another shortcoming of the reviewer’s analysis, in my opinion, is that it assumes a conventional attitude toward religion, Christianity, God, and Christ that Blake did not possess.

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” —Wikipedia, accessed November 4, 2008

Finally, it’s not at all clear that Blake saw his metaphorical tiger as pure evil — the lamb and the tiger are not necessarily opposites — but rather as beautiful and terrifying.

Because scholars have for over two hundred years continued to debate the complex message of “The Tiger” without reaching consensus, I shall boldly contribute my own theory: The lamb (both in the poem “The Lamb” and in the allusion to the lamb in “The Tiger”) are metaphors for facets of the human personality, including Blake’s own inner angels and demons, and the “contrary states” of human life.

When one is young and innocent — untested — one is “tender,” “meek,” “mild.” (Need I mention that Blake and his wife and lifelong companion, Catherine Boucher Blake, had no children?) With adulthood comes experience and power, to be used for good or ill. One does not stop altogether being a “lamb” when one gains the “fearful symmetry” of a “tiger.”

The following analysis of “The Tiger” presents a more refined understanding, I think, of the poem and its intricacy:

The reference to the lamb in the penultimate [second-from-the-last] stanza reminds the reader that a tiger and a lamb have been created by the same God, and raises questions about the implications of this. It also invites a contrast between the perspectives of “experience” and “innocence” represented here and in the poem “The Lamb.” “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions, and the poet leaves us [in]… awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, and the inscrutability of divine will. The perspective of experience in this poem involves a sophisticated acknowledgment of what is unexplainable in the universe, presenting evil as the prime example of something that cannot be denied, but will not withstand facile explanation, either. The open awe of “The Tyger” contrasts with the easy confidence, in “The Lamb,” of a child’s innocent faith in a benevolent universe.Sparknotes.com, accessed November 4, 2008

Assignment 19.1

What animal are you?

Regardless of Blake’s intention — and who’s to say that it was static and fully formed even as he wrote the poems? — I believe it’s fair to say that we are all, metaphorically, at different times and in different situations, an entire menagerie. Throughout history and literature, people have been compared to and represented as lions, puppies, rats, mice, panthers, fawns, even elephants.

I wrote “The Kitten” (below) strictly to illustrate this lesson — as a metaphor for my own vulnerability — not to win any poetry prizes. I live alone now, but I was once pampered and protected. I can be sturdy and resilient — like, say, a Saint Bernard. I can be an “eager beaver.” Sometimes I like to hibernate, like a bear. But occasionally — when, for example, I have to carry a bag of groceries home from the store, or when the plumbing gets stopped up, or when I’m weary or just plain lonely — I’d enjoy being treasured and taken care of.

THE KITTEN

I am a kitten, wishing to lie
in a soft, sunny spot with my lover nearby,
to be fed when I’m hungry and stroked when I sigh
and held all through the night when the wind rises high.

Your assignment is to write something similar — it needn’t be in the form of a rhyming poem; a few lines of graceful prose will do as well — about yourself. Begin with the words “I am a,” then name the animal you are, and describe a few of that animal’s features that are like your own characteristics.

Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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